Russell Sage College recently served as the filming location for not one but two independent movies. Shooting for Off The Rails lasted four days on campus in October 2016, while filming for James Franco’s The Pretenders occurred on campus during the first week of November.
“For a while it looked like we were both going to be filming on the campus at the same time,” said alumnus Steven O’Connor, location manager for Off the Rails (originally titled Derailed during filming). Even more extraordinary is that the storyline of Off the Rails, which aired on Lifetime Movie Network on March 26, is actually set at Sage.
“Usually filmmakers go into a location and change the signage, so Russell Sage College would become some other college. This time they kept the name—the college in the movie is Russell Sage,” O’Connor said. “I’m really glad they didn’t change the names of the locations and the cities—Albany and Troy. When the characters go into Jack’s restaurant in Albany, they’re going into Jack’s. That was really exciting to me, being an Albany person— to see the city where I was born as Albany in a movie and not a stand-in for another city.”
Filming locations included Sage Hall, Gurley Hall, Sage Park and Lafayette Courtyard. Several shots included building exteriors on campus and facing Second Street, while multiple rooms within those buildings served as a variety of settings. Most of the credit for landing Russell Sage College a starring role belongs to O’Connor, an Albany native who earned his associate and bachelor’s degrees from Junior College of Albany and Sage Evening College. For nine years, he has been involved with the Upstate Independent Filmmakers Network, a nonprofit that he now serves as president.
Last year, producer Michael Buttiglieri asked O’Connor if he was interested in a location scout/manager position for Off The Rails, which he accepted. The filmmakers were looking for a college that had an “Ivy League” look, rather than a modern state university. O’Connor showed the Russell Sage campus first. “It was perfect for what they wanted,” he said.
Russell Sage College people appeared onscreen, too, including Leigh Strimbeck, artist-in residence at the Theatre Institute at Sage, who played Maggie Barrow, a relative of the main character.
About Off the Rails
Off The Rails is a psychological thriller set in Albany and Troy, and follows Nicole Barrow, the survivor of a train derailment that caused her to lose her memory. Barrow is a geography professor at Russell Sage College and her love for cartography and old maps is something that she did not lose in the crash. Her visits with a hypnotherapist reveal disturbing flashes of a raven and a mysterious man. As she scrambles to put the pieces of her mind back together, the beautiful Terra Incognita map display in Boston leads her to recall a man she knows she’s loved but can’t quite place. Is this man tied to her flashbacks? Barrow is in a hunt to track the mystery of her former self. (Plot summary provided by the filmmakers.)
MORE Troy Movie Memories
Downtown Troy and the Russell Sage College neighborhood have served as the backdrop for several Hollywood movies over the years, including The Bostonians (1984), Ironweed (1987), The Age of Innocence (1993) and The Time Machine (2002). A native of Northampton, Massachusetts, Lynn Kopka ’74 has remained in Troy since graduation and she remembers each time Hollywood has come to town, including the time Jack Nicholson was in her backyard during the filming of Ironweed.
“When they filmed The Age of Innocence, it was so boring. We would wait hours and hours and nothing would happen. I remember seeing Michele Pfeifer walk out of the house and I was like, ‘I’m done.’ That was around 2 a.m.,” she said. “We were all paid to light our houses all night long. There were horses in Washington Park and they made artificial snowbanks.”
As president of the Washington Park Association in Troy, Kopka has been a driving force for the dramatic revitalization of that neighborhood. Hollywood helped inspire her mission by giving her a glimpse of what those historic buildings and blocks would look like when restored.
“At the time, Washington Place was derelict,” she said. “It had boarded up windows.” But with some Hollywood cosmetics, film crews temporarily touched up the buildings for the screen. “Once we saw those buildings as they could be in the movie, then we wanted to make them look that way for real,” she said. “And they do today.”
-Contributed by Duncan Crary
Behind the Scenes on The Pretenders
Summer Jennings ’17 had a lot of fun as an extra on the set of The Pretenders while it filmed on Russell Sage College’s campus and in downtown Albany. She was in six different scenes: a rooftop party scene, shot on the roof of Kellas; a campus street scene; two scenes in a pizzeria in the city of Albany; and two dorm scenes.
“Each day I was on set, I was in close proximity to the director, James Franco, and working with or around the main four actors of the film,” she said. “One scene in particular, my favorite one, involving the pivotal story scene, I was positioned right outside of the small dorm room James Franco sat in, out of the shot, directing. It was absolutely amazing hearing him give pointers, direction and input to every take. Out of respect, I did not approach him during filming. Not to say I wasn’t tempted when he was within a foot of me, sometimes!”
Jennings, who is pursuing an interdisciplinary degree to prepare for a career in marketing and design, said it was “a burst of ‘what-the-heck’ attitude” that led her to email the casting director to inquire about opportunities for extras as soon as she learned that the Academy Award-nominated actor, director and producer Franco was scouting film locations on campus. While the filmmakers later posted an open call for extras to the entire Russell Sage College community, Jennings’ initiative landed her an additional role. “Two weeks before shooting began, I got an email offering me another extra job in a movie featuring Chloë Grace Moretz. A friend from New Jersey and I shot an 80s/90s prom scene.” -EG